Just one hour after the National Health and Medical Research Council had given a clean bill of health to the nation’s wind farms, Fairfax websites published this story: around 25,000 face masks are being distributed to residents in Morwell and Traralgon to filter out ash and smoke from the fire at the Hazelwood coal mine.

Nothing could better highlight the current absurdity of Australia’s energy debate. As fossil fuels continue to burn and pollute, a witch-hunt accommodated and encouraged by the new Abbott government has brought the large-scale renewable energy industry to a halt, and it could close it down entirely. Small-scale renewables, such as rooftop solar and energy efficiency schemes, are also under attack.

The wind industry has been hit the hardest. Behind the scenes, the campaign is being orchestrated by fossil fuel interests, their media lackeys and self-appointed apologists whom University of Sydney professor Simon Chapman describes as having all the qualities of the “anti-vaccine and antifluoride fruitcakes”.

The NHMRC study has given the industry a clean bill of health, but it is unlikely to deliver a clear path to development.

Australia’s leading health review body found there is no reliable or consistent evidence that proximity to wind farms or wind farm noise directly causes health effects. This echoes every other investigation that has been conducted into the industry. The study found that there was consistent but poor-quality evidence that proximity to wind turbines was associated with annoyance and, less consistently, with sleep disturbance and poorer quality of life.

But finding an association between wind farms and these health-related effects does not mean that wind turbines cause these problems. These associations could be due to selection or information bias or to confounding factors.

So-called “wind turbine syndrome” is just one of the issues that are thrown at the wind energy industry by its detractors and its competitors. The others are costs, reliability and integration into the grid, and wind energy’s ability to reduce emissions. All issues have been thoroughly debunked, but they all are regularly parroted by Prime Minister Tony Abbott in the briefing notes prepared by his inner core of advisers.

There are several layers of strategy that deal with the issue of climate change that have been defined for governments by the deep-pocketed fossil fuel lobbies that prevail in the United States, Australia and elsewhere: first you deny the science; then you accept the science but play down its impacts; then you set no policy that reflects that supposed engagement; and then you urge less deployment of clean energy and more R&D, in the apparent expectation that it will become cost competitive.

It already is. But left to their own devices, the incumbent generators have no interest in building new wind farms because it will affect the value of their already fully depreciated existing assets — many of which have been built over recent decades courtesy of historic subsidies and market protection, and whose power of incumbency is reinforced by the structure of the national electricity market.

“The Coalition, smarter than your average Labor bear, knew what it had to do to stop renewables in their tracks.”

The Renewable Energy Target is designed to accelerate the transition to a clean energy future by providing a mechanism to facilitate that new investment in wind, solar and other renewables, and push ageing and dirty fossil fuel generation out the other side.

Australia’s falling electricity demand — courtesy of a proliferation of rooftop solar, energy-efficient appliances and warm winters — would appear to provide the opportunity to make that policy a resounding success. The minimum target of 20%, set a few years ago, could turn out to be more than 25%.

But just as the first Mandatory Renewable Target under the Howard government was branded “too successful” and brought to a sudden halt, the same fate awaits the current target.

Nearly a decade ago, Howard government appointee Grant Tambling, a former Liberal politician who actually went off-script and found that renewables were a good thing and the target should be expanded. His advice was rejected. The Abbott government has taken no chances this time round, appointing climate change sceptic (“I am not a denier”) Dick Warburton to head the panel.

If Warburton does not even accept the science of climate change, let alone the need to phase out fossil fuels, he is unlikely to support policies that encourage renewables, whatever the facts about costs, system integration and health benefits are put in front of him.

The clean energy industry must be kicking itself. The new RET review is justified by the Abbott government because it is a statutory requirement. It need not have been; the Climate Change Authority in the last review handed down in 2012 said a four-year spacing between reviews was essential to give the industry the certainty it required.

The Coalition, smarter than your average Labor bear, knew what it had to do to stop renewables in their tracks. The government “endorsed” the CCA findings but insisted all along that another review should be held. Behind the scenes, the Coalition was saying there would be “trouble” if the legislation was changed.

The clean energy industry could have called its bluff, but it blinked instead, and advised Labor not to incur the wrath of the new government by changing the legislation. It seems absurd now. From the moment it was clear that the Coalition would likely win the election and a review would be inevitable, new wind energy developments have been brought to a halt, and this is flowing through to plans for large-scale solar.

And the situation is likely to remain unchanged until the government has endorsed or done otherwise with the Warburton review and formulated its energy white paper.

*This article was originally published at RenewEconomy

Peter Fray

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